The particulars of the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl weren't unpredictable: two Notre Dame quarterbacks played as promised. Both threw costly, head-shaking interceptions. Neither established any semblances of rhythm in their curious job-share against one of the nation's quickest, stingiest defenses.
And in the end, as noted often prior to the contest, the team with two offensive touchdowns was able to win the offensively challenged contest – the 18-14 final score marked the sixth contest in which Notre Dame scored 20 points or fewer this fall. Sobering because the team's defense has grown leaps and bounds since the head coach took the reigns and promised such a development 24 months ago.
But the cold truth is that 26 games into Kelly's tenure, he still hasn't found quarterback on which he can rely, at least not against most BCS conference foes vs. whom the veteran play-caller is a mere 11-8 over the last two autumns.
One of his four options was unceremoniously dumped 30 minutes into Year 2. Another regressed greatly in games 11, 12, and 13 of the same season. The third appears to suffer from the same malady that plagued him earlier this season: he's a runner and a thrower, not yet a passer or a quarterback.
Notre Dame's current program predicament is similar to that of the former coaching staff: it has one side of scrimmage under control while the other remains inadequate.
"Both teams played great defense today. It's nice to be able to talk about a Notre Dame football team that plays championship defense. They did that today," said Kelly of an effort that including just 290 total yards for the victorious Seminoles.
"Now we have to get our offense to play at that level as well. That will be the next step for our football program – getting our offense to play at the same level our defense has evolved into."
Paramount toward that end is a quarterback who makes fewer mistakes. Failing that, one that makes his share of plays along the way.
"Today as you know, the turnovers again were a large reason for us not being able to win this football game. It's been the case all year," Kelly offered. "It started at South Florida and continued to show itself throughout the entire year. We know what we need to do. We've already talked about it. And players that are going to be back for the 2012 football season will be committed to getting that end done."
Notre Dame committed five turnovers in the aforementioned opening loss. It committed three more today and an astounding 29 over the 13-game season.
Spring Forward or (again) Fall BackKelly will have a three-man quarterback derby this spring with Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix, and Everett Golson presumably entering the session on relatively equal footing. It's incumbent upon Kelly and his staff that the competition's fruition includes a clear-cut winner, because Notre Dame's multiple quarterback system failed Thursday night in Orlando. It would do so again next year, too, at least by the time the team travels to East Lansing, or hosts Michigan, or Stanford, et al.
"It's never easy when you play two quarterbacks," Kelly stated following the 187-yard dual-passing effort.
Most of football America, including his starter Rees, agrees. "I think coach does a good job communicating with us so we have time to warm up and get our arms (ready). It kind of hurts the rhythm a little bit when you come in and out, but it's something that coach thought would help our team win and it definitely worked in spots here and there and is something you have to play with."
Rees completed 16 of 27 with two passes intercepted in the end zone – one on the team's first series, one on its last. Hendrix hit for 3 of 8, his errant throw set up Florida State's go-ahead touchdown early in the final period.
Last year, Notre Dame's quarterbacks combined for 28 touchdowns and 16 interceptions while losing three fumbles. This year, Notre Dame's signal-callers suffered 17 picks and six lost fumbles while throwing 20 touchdown passes.
Considering both were afforded the nation's best tight end, the program's most productive all-time wide receiver, and the program's best rushing attack of the millennium, (by both yards-per-carry and touchdowns scored) the regression is sobering.
"I guess I'm not an offensive guy," Kelly offered post-game when asked about his team's struggles on the side of scrimmage for which he's best known. Then again, the Irish are 1-8 under Kelly when the opponent scores more than 21 points, so it's hard to argue with the coach's flippant self-assessment.
"I'm going to have to evaluate everything that I do and how we do it because we have to get our offense better, and when I say better, I'm not talking about the way our guys compete. I'm talking about we turn the ball over, and we cannot win football games at the highest level if we continue to turn the ball over, so the coaches have to get better. The players have to get better, and we have to solve this issue if we're going to be an elite football team."
Kelly, his staff, and a trio of combatants have nine months to solve that issue, and to ensure the 2012 season in no way resembles its predecessor.